Redefining Deviance

British police are reporting a strange trend: Crime is going up but arrests are going down. Authorities say police officers have apparently "reached the ceiling" in their ability to respond to rising crime. They're tolerating behavior they once arrested people for. The same thing is happening here in the United States, says Senator Patrick Moynihan. He calls the trend, "defining deviancy down." Consider: In Chicago in 1929 four gangsters killed seven other gangsters, and a shocked nation called it the St. Valentine's Day massacre. Today, the same number of people are killed every weekend in Los Angeles—and no one is even shocked. We have defined deviancy down: We have adjusted our level of expectations until we tolerate rates of crime once deemed intolerable. And ironically, we as a culture are feeding this phenomenon. I recently heard Senator Sam Nunn offer a remarkable example. It was taken from an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which discussed the first longitudinal studies on the effects of television violence on young people. And the results are chilling. Babies are born with an innate capacity to imitate adult behavior, the article noted. They will imitate anything they see. What's more, until they are five years old, children do not understand that the realistic programs they watch on television are not real. Even if adults coach them, they are unable to grasp the distinction. As a result, the earliest and deepest mental impressions are made during a time when the child sees television as a source of factual information. The child learns that the outside world is a place where violence is frequent, colorful, and exciting. What happens when this child becomes a young adult? At moments of severe anguish or stress—moments when we all revert to our earliest, most visceral feelings—this child's memory will activate deep-rooted images of violence. The instinct to imitate what we see may trip him into committing a violent crime. This is not mere theory. About one-third of young males in prison for violent crimes report that they consciously imitated crime techniques they learned from television. I wonder how many others unconsciously imitate crimes they learned from television. What can we do about it? Clearly, we should start by monitoring our own children better. Some parents allow small children to watch adult programs, feeling that what children don't understand won't hurt them. But the images planted at a tender age can and do shape behavior. Turning off the set isn't the only answer. Senator Nunn says we also need to put pressure on the television industry to clean up their programs. What if every CEO in America pledged to review the television programs his company sponsors? What if every CEO asked not only about ratings but also about the content of the programs supported by his corporate dollars? This is a prime opportunity for business to practice social and ethical responsibility. If we keep redefining deviance down, we will be like the proverbial frog in the kettle—who keeps redefining the level of heat he will tolerate . . . until he boils to death.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary